Millimetric to centimetric green grains widespread in pelagic calcareous sediments recovered at a water depth of 3000 m near the Costa Rica margin were studied by X-ray diffraction, scanning electron microscopy (SEM), transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy. Samples were collected, during the Ticoflux II expedition, from the upper bioturbated part of four sedimentary cores (0.13–3.75 m below seafloor). The sediments are calcareous and siliceous nanofossil oozes (coccoliths, diatoms, radiolarians, etc.).
Green grains show generally a concentric zoning with a green rim in which smectite largely predominates over pyrite and a black core in which pyrite is prevalent. Observations by SEM indicate that this zoning results from a progressive inward alteration and replacement of the accumulations of pyrites by smectites. The high-resolution TEM observations of the smectite-pyrite interfaces suggest that the replacement of pyrites by smectite occurs through a dissolution-precipitation process with the formation of a gel. The pyrite matrix is composed of a huge number of very small (0.5–2 μm) pyrite octahedra, a typical texture resulting from the pyritization of organic material in early diagenetic environments.
The accurate mineralogical and crystal chemical characterization of the smectites indicate that they are Fe3+-montmorillonites (Fe3+-rich smectite with a dominant octahedral charge, rarely recorded in the literature). The formation of such Fe3+-montmorillonites forming green grains could be explained by two successive diagenetic redox stages: (1) reducing stage: early pyritization of the organic matter by microbial reduction within reducing micro-environments; (2) oxidizing stage: Fe3+-montmorillonite crystallized in space liberated after dissolution of pyrite connected with the rebalancing of the redox conditions of the micro-environments with the oxidizing surrounding sediments.